Thursday, February 9, 2017

Book Review: The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China

The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China
David J. Silbey
Military history

A confession is in order. I developed an unreasoning dislike for The Boxer Rebellion on page 11. The twin reasons:

  • Sibley asserts that the 1857 Indian Mutiny led to a sea change in British attitudes towards colonized peoples. As evidence, he cites Rudyard Kipling: "The difference between . . . 'Gunga Din' and . . . 'The White Man's Burden' was the difference pre- and post-mutiny." 
    • In 1857, Rudyard Kipling was negative eight years old. (He was born December 30, 1865.) If he ever had a pre-Mutiny attitude, he must have gotten it from a time machine.
    • "Gunga Din" was published in 1892, thirty-five years after the Mutiny. "The White Man's Burden" was published a mere seven years later, and in any case is subtitled "The United States and the Philippine Islands". I don't believe that the period between 1892 and 1899 represented a major shift in attitudes, especially not a major shift attributable to an event in 1857.
  • Furthermore, says Sibley: ". . . what the colonized, the 'subalterns,' thought of this was rarely considered" (emphasis added). A subaltern is not a colonized person. A subaltern is a junior officer--a first or second lieutenant, in modern terms. If you're going to make sweeping pronouncements, you should show evidence that you've gotten your basic facts right.
(Further furthermore, the maps in this book are absolutely wretched. They're nothing more than small reproductions of period sketches, stuck in among the illustrations.)


With that off my chest, I can say that The Boxer Rebellion is in general a clear and straightforward military history. It touches on larger social and political forces, but mainly to set the context for the fighting. Silbey is generally pretty fair and pretty scrupulous in his facts and in his more quantifiable interpretations.

He goes off the rails somewhat when he tries to draw larger conclusions. For example, he goes to some trouble to establish that the Boxers were not a random force of nature, but a perfectly comprehensible response to the existing situation in China--a way for the Chinese people to make sense of what was happening, consistent with their understandings and traditions. As such, then, the Boxers were a mass movement with mass popular support. But Silbey also castigates the invading Western forces for treating every Chinese person as an enemy. If you grant his original conclusion about the nature of the Boxers, then the attitude of the invaders becomes perfectly rational. 

I'm not saying that it was moral. Shooting unarmed people en masse is never moral. But if the Boxers were indeed a mass movement with mass popular support, then an us-vs.-them attitude on the part of the invaders is--just like the Boxers themselves--a perfectly comprehensible response to the situation.

Also, I don't think Silbey establishes his basic point. He's trying to  argue that, in the words of the back-cover blurb, "the Boxers came much closer to beating back the combined might of all the imperial powers than is commonly thought." His own facts fail to support the argument. On page 150, for instance, we learn that "The British . . . had lost fourteen killed and fifty-three wounded in . . . two weeks" of "near-constant fighting". For a nation of 400 million to inflict fourteen fatalities in fourteen days does not argue a high degree of military competence or enthusiasm.

For that matter, why should the Chinese have displayed any enthusiasm? Silbey fails to say this, but in fact the state they were nominally defending was cruel, venal, corrupt, incompetent, autocratic, and unjust. A system where the punishment for being on the wrong side of a policy decision is execution--regardless of whether the policy itself turns out well--is a bad system. (This isn't to justify the colonial attitude, which seems to have been that it's OK to burgle your neighbor's home because his locks are flimsy.)

Finally, there's a moral question here that Silbey doesn't recognize. He's trying to treat the Boxers in a neutral, non-judgmental fashion. A laudable goal? Perhaps. But I can think of another, much more recent popular movement that
  • seemingly blew up out of nowhere;
  • is a popular response to corrupt and dysfunctional official governments;
  • is violently anti-foreigner;
  • is equally anti-modern;
  • brutally persecutes locals who happen to be of a different religion;
  • has as its aim the "restoration" of past (largely imaginary) imperial glories;
  • enjoyed a shocking degree of initial success.
If the Boxers' actions are morally neutral, in other words, then are not the actions of ISIS equally morally neutral?

The only other book I've read that treated the Boxer Rebellion is Walter Lord's The Good Years. Like all of Lord's books, it's a ripping good yarn. It's written from a more traditional Western viewpoint, though, and it focuses very heavily on the siege of the foreign legations in Beijing.


  1. Wow, I guess you didn't like it, which kind of begs, why finish it?

    1. In fact, I did like it in some ways--after I'd gotten over my initial reaction, that is. Purely as a military history, it's nicely done (except for the lack of maps). Clear, straightforward, readable, and scrupulous.

      The fact that I'm criticizing Silbey's conclusions is not a sign of dislike. If anything, it's a good sign; it means that I was engaged with the book. I just didn't agree with the author's analysis when he departed from the straight-and-narrow.